Welcome to the annual All Bullpen Audit. While Opening Day remains an ongoing uncertainty, we’ll hopefully see at least some Major League Baseball this season. It’s best to be prepared, so today’s column will cover all 30 bullpens at a high level with a focus on closers and potential usurpers. Next week, we’ll dive head first into stolen base threats.
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Under normal circumstances, I would have advised caution when acquiring decent closers who might be ousted like Sean Doolittle and Raisel Iglesias. Ostensibly, we won’t have time to be patient waiting for the next-in-line options to emerge. As such, you should consider moving premium and mid-tier closers up your draft board. Even fringy investments like Mychal Givens and Brandon Kintzler are looking better and better by the day.
On the flip side of the coin, grabbing ultra-talented but blocked relievers like James Karinchak, Drew Pomeranz, and Andres Munoz should be viewed primarily as a strategy for improving your team ratios. In a full season, we might bet on their talent and typical reliever attrition paving the way to something like 10 saves. Now, that looks like overly wishful thinking.
Atlanta Braves: Mark Melancon, Will Smith
The Braves are stocked with former and future closers. Smith is the best reliever on hand, but the Braves have committed to opening the year with Melancon handling the ninth inning. They’ve left just enough wiggle room for Smith to organically claim the role even if Melancon is pitching well. Smith is certainly the preferred option for fantasy owners. He’s a fringe Top 10 closer with around 13.00 K/9 and a low walk rate. Melancon, by comparison, is a less exciting option who has suffered from painful slumps in recent years. At his best, he’ll notch a strikeout per inning while inducing weak groundball contact.
The Mets have a three-headed relief ace. Diaz will get a shot to reprise the dominance he showed in 2018. Last year, he suffered a vicious case of homeritis (2.33 HR/9). Besides the preponderance of long balls, Diaz retained all his former qualities including 15.36 K/9 and one of the highest swinging strike rates in the league. Betances and Lugo are attractive fallback options. Spring Training reports of Betances’ return from injury are mixed. His fastball was clocked in the low 90s but his signature curve ball was in evidence. Lugo is perhaps a safer gamble with his efficient approach and ever-improving relief results.
As was already mentioned, there’s some concern that Doolittle’s days as the Nationals closer may be numbered. It’s been ages since he survived a season without an injury. A lighter workload in a more carefully managed role could help. Hudson, who took over as the Nationals fireman late last year, is a less than ideal replacement candidate. ERA estimators suggest he should have finished with between a 4.00 and 5.00 ERA. Harris has the makings of a solid closer despite lacking the usual flash and sizzle associated with the job. However, with his hefty ground ball rate, he’s one of the best in the league at escaping jams. It might be preferable for Harris to be used as an escape artist from mid-inning jams.
Philadelphia’s bullpen hopes took a hit recently when Seranthony Dominguez had a setback in his recovery from elbow discomfort. There’s still a chance he’ll avoid Tommy John surgery which would put him on track to return in time for the delayed season. In either case, Neris remains the top reliever in Philly, but we all know he’s prone to multi-week meltdowns. When he’s on a hot streak, he’ll post numbers up there with the best fantasy closers. It’s those clunkers that really bring him down. He’s going fairly early in drafts this year because he mostly avoided bad outings last season. Arano leans very heavily on a slider to post fringe-closer quality numbers, and he also missed much of 2019 with elbow pain.
The Miami relief corps is a work in progress. Kintzler will open the year among the worst closers in the league. However, a save is a save even if the accompanying strikeout rate and ratios are pedestrian. Boxberger, a volatile former closer who’s bounced around since his heyday in 2015, was on track to make the Opening Day roster as a setup man. Ryne Stanek is on hand too. Keep an eye out for prospect Alex Vesia.
Hader is the top closer on fantasy draft boards, and there’s good reason. Nobody can match his combination of swinging strike, strikeout, and soft contact rates. While home runs were a problem last year, there’s reason to hope for regression in his 21.4 percent home run to fly ball ratio. The Brewers like to use Hader for multi-inning appearances which might open the door for Knebel to snipe a handful of saves. Burnes, if he doesn’t land in the rotation, has special talent but has yet to actualize it with consistently positive results.
The Cardinals ninth inning plans remain an enigma. They seem to have some hesitance with handing the job to Gallegos to the point that they intentionally hyped up a lesser alternative in Helsley as one of the top contenders for the role. The delay also means Miles Mikolas will have time to return to the Opening Day rotation, possibly bumping Martinez back into relief work. However, he drew praise for his work as a starter this spring so maybe somebody else draws the short straw. Reyes, meanwhile, is a post-hype prospect with a blistering fastball and a long injury rap sheet.
Iglesias struggled at multiple junctures in 2019. He never really came too close to losing his job, but he probably used up whatever leash he’d earned in previous seasons. Garrett isn’t quite on par with Iglesias due to suspect command. He’s also left-handed. When you glance around the league, most left-handed closers arose through the failure of a peer rather than purely on their own merits. Perhaps Iglesias will fail? Lorenzen is my personal favorite reliever in this relief corps. His dual role as a reliever and outfielder could affect his availability as a closer.
The Pirates and Cubs, once possessing some of the strongest bullpens in the division, now pull up the rear. Last season, Pittsburgh lost Felipe Vazquez to criminal charges related to pedophilia. Kela has some experience as a closer from his time in Texas. He’s widely considered difficult to coach. He’ll typically record better than 10.00 K/9 with otherwise above average fantasy stats. He’s one of the best “cheap” closers on the market. Kimbrel, a former number one closer in this column, is coming off a disastrous half-season. We’ll just have to see how he adapts to another shortened campaign. Neither Crick nor Wick were closer quality relievers in the past, although modest improvement could unlock another level.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen
The Padres may have the best bullpen in baseball. Yates was the top reliever last season and is seemingly poised to defend his crown. He divides his repertoire between a fastball and splitter. Hitters have no idea what’s coming. While this hasn’t been an issue for Yates, splitter specialists tend to be inconsistent. That could crack open the door for one of Pomeranz, Pagan, or Munoz, all of whom have flashed Top 10 closer ability. Pomeranz took a huge step forward late last season as a reliever. Pagan emerged as a stud for the Rays. Munoz possesses some of the nastiest stuff in the sport. He just needs to learn to throw fewer middle-middle heaters.
The once mighty Dodgers bullpen is now leaning on the waning years of Jansen’s career plus a series of other “buy-low” gambles. Jansen still throws a steady diet of excellent cutters, but they’re missing just a bit of the zip they had in the past. They’ve become more hittable as a result. Blake Treinen is on hand in an attempt to recapture his 2018 magic. Joe Kelly, if he makes some much-needed adjustments, could still surprise us with a useful season.
From here, the division dwindles. Watson (when healthy) and Bradley are able closers. They’re also uninspiring and unlikely to truly excel. As with Kintzler in Miami, a save is a save. Arizona has some interesting backups. Rondon, a former Cubs and Astros closer, had a solid run in the Houston bullpen in 2018. Ginkel looked like a relief ace in limited work last year. He throws a barrage of sliders. In San Fran, Rogers (brother of Twins closer Taylor Rogers) is the most viable alternative to Watson. He’s a submariner with a Brad Ziegler-like delivery. As you may recall, I spent several years criticizing Ziegler’s brand of low-strikeout, get-the-job-done late-inning work.
As for the Colorado bullpen, Davis looked lost and broken last year. He was execrable at Coors Field and merely bad on the road. Oberg pitched well including fantasy relevant stats in all four reliever categories. However, the list of relievers with consecutive years of success in Denver is very short.
While his colleagues Kimbrel and Jansen are beginning to fade, Chapman has continued to thrive. The imposing southpaw has lost some of his heat over the last two years. He still averages over 98 mph with his fastball. Command and control can come and go which will occasionally necessitate a brief demotion to a mid-leverage role while he works out the kinks. Britton, a former top closer in his own right, remains the king of ground balls. His low strikeout rate makes him a flawed but passable target in holds leagues. Ottavino could be closing for a dozen teams. He also battles bouts of poor command.
The Rays bullpen is one of the best in the business – quite possibly the best. Fantasy managers would love for the club to install Anderson as the closer where he’d instantly be on par with Hader, Yates, and Chapman in the elite tier. Alas, the Rays prefer to use “stoppers” to handle whatever situation is best-suited to their skills. Anderson should receive a big chunk of the saves here, but Castillo, Alvarado, Poche, and Drake are also in the mix for a handful. All feature closer-like ability with the potential for fantasy-aiding ratios. This is an excellent bullpen to target for multi-purpose relievers.
Toronto discarded Roberto Osuna after his domestic violence suspension in 2018. They acquired Giles, a then-struggling former top closer, in the deal. Giles rebounded with the Jays, but a balky forearm ruined any chance for the club to capitalize with a trade. They had some success managing his workload and will probably take the same approach this year. Bass looked like a closer candidate for the horrific Mariners – hardly a rousing recommendation. Dolis unlocked additional velocity, control, and breaking stuff while playing in Japan.
Workman was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2019 season. Much of his success can be traced to allowing just one home run in 71.2 innings. He’s always been moderately homer prone so it’s unclear if he can repeat that feat. He only throws a fastball around one-third of the time which helps the pitch to play up. His curve is his best offering and the source of his 13.06 K/9. Walks were an issue. Barnes possesses a similar profile while Darwinzon Hernandez is a flashy prospect with a big fastball and poor command.
Givens is one of the last closers drafted this year after a painful 2019 campaign. Despite falling afoul of home runs, nothing changed in his profile. He’s always successfully prevented home runs, leading me to predict a sharp rebound this year. While I’ve never loved Givens as a closer – past episodes of Saves and Steals contain ample proof – he’s my most frequently targeted reliever this draft season. If you’d rather bet against him, Harvey is a former top prospect who just can’t stay healthy as a starting pitcher. In a brief sample, he looked to have the makings of late-innings reliever complete with a triple-digit heater.
Kansas City Royals: Ian Kennedy
Detroit Tigers: Joe Jimenez
The Indians have three closers, which is good because the rest of their bullpen leaves much to be desired. Although Hand wilted down the stretch, the underlying numbers were still very positive. It makes sense to invest in Karinchak and Clase because of their quality, but we also can’t assume Hand will lose the job. A shortened season should only help him to stay fresh. Karinchak is an early contender to be this year’s Nick Anderson. His walk issues are partly due to overwhelmingly nasty stuff. Major League catchers like Roberto Perez should do a better job handling him. Clase works more consistently within the strike zone. His statistical profile might look more like Roberto Osuna – i.e. excellent results with fewer strikeouts than desired.
Every year, somebody completely off the radar transforms enough to become a meaningful closer. Rogers was a good-not-great middle reliever entering 2019. By ditching his curve for a frequently used slider, he transformed into a star. Rogers is a keen draft day target as the cheapest of the top tier closers. Romo has a long history of backdooring his way into some saves. Tyler Duffey and Trevor May look like breakout candidates.
Colome is a typical workaday closer. His only standout fantasy category is saves. Now that the White Sox are transitioning from rebuilding to contending, they might eventually want to install their best reliever, Bummer, in the ninth inning. Unfortunately for us, Bummer profiles similarly to Britton, meaning we won’t be banking many strikeouts while we stash him.
Few closers have less competition than Kennedy and Jimenez. While Kennedy performed well enough last season to earn a long leash, Jimenez is still awaiting his breakout. He’s shown all the individual traits of a closer, he’s just never pieced it all together. Even with ugly supporting casts, these are both examples of closers who should move up your overall draft board as the result of a shortened season.
Texas Rangers: Jose Leclerc
The Osuna-Pressly tandem is one of the most impressive late-inning combinations. Pressly lost some of his shimmer late last season as he battled knee pain. Earlier in the year, he fired 21 consecutive scoreless innings, continuing a longer streak from the previous season. He’d be a borderline Top 5 closer if given the chance. Instead, Osuna retains an unshakeable grasp on the ninth inning job. He still has the stuff to support a sharp increase in strikeout rate. He seemingly prefers to induce weak contact. Not a bad choice, but his fantasy managers would undoubtedly prefer 12.00 K/9.
Like Twins reliever Taylor Rogers, Hendriks was a decent middle reliever entering 2019. When the dust cleared, he was one of the top closers in the league. His 13.13 K/9 and 1.80 ERA over 85 innings helped win more than a few championships. His only notable change was a two-mph velocity increase. It’s the second straight year the Athletics minted an elite closer with humble beginnings. Hendriks shows no signs of slowing, but neither did Blake Treinen. Soria and teammate Yusmeiro Petit should pile up holds even if the rest of their statistical profile is modest.
Robles continued a multi-season upward trend to his velocity. He also spontaneously halved his walk rate. His changeup emerged as his top offering and helped his fastball and slider to play up. There are reasons to worry about his ability to maintain the new walk rate and a low home run rate. The Angels don’t have one specific guy obviously poised to challenge Robles. Instead, they have a group of talented, incomplete veterans who all have different ways to improve. It’s reasonable to expect one of them to take a step forward. Picking which one is the challenge.
A splitter specialist by trade, Leclerc has walked the world in all but one season – his breakout 2018 campaign. While he can hurt his fantasy managers, especially in head-to-head leagues, his high strikeout rate ensures at least some productivity. The Rangers also appear to be a competent club this year. Rafael Montero and Joely Rodriguez should be tracked, especially if Leclerc starts off on the wrong foot.
The Mariners are the only club besides the Cardinals and Rays entering 2020 without a named closer. While St. Louis and Tampa Bay are swimming in excellent options, we’ll just have to await somebody to emerge in Seattle. We waited all of 2019 without a single viable option. Magill finished the year as their high leverage guy. They’ve talked about Hirano taking some early saves because of his “experience.” In my opinion, Brandon Brennan is currently the best dart throw from this collection. He has the makings of a good middle reliever or low-end setup guy. Lurking on the farm is strikeout machine Sam Delaplane.